Antidotes to White Supremacy Culture

Tulips and daffodils bulbs bloom again, after dying. March 2021
Overt and Covert White Supremacy

This is a work in progress. Please excuse the incompleteness. Consult the links. Be inspired by the tulips and daffodils in the picture, evoking as they do an ethic of care and servant leadership by their natural rhythms of dying and rising again.

“Culture eats strategy for lunch,” she shared candidly in her presentation and suddenly it hit me! It is critically important for all who want to be anti-racists to become aware of the culture(s) that we practice and are part of, not just the socio-political racial identities to which we’re ascribed and sometimes become enculturated! This means that we must constantly examine more than just our implicit biases and behaviors. We must uncover the ways in which we and other members of the organizations in which we work, collectively and individually, knowingly and unknowingly, are the handmaidens of a white supremacy culture. BL: How am I practicing white supremacy culture? What are the actions I can take for systems level change both in the short-term and the long-term?

The characteristics of white supremacy culture that all people, including people of color, and people of color led organizations may be practicing are well-documented (2001). They are: 1) Perfectionism, 2) Sense of Urgency, 3) Defensiveness, 4) Quantity over Quality, 5) Worship of the Written Word, 5) Only One Right Way, 6) Paternalism, 6) Either / Or Thinking, 7) Power Hoarding, 8) Fear of Conflict, 9) Individualism, 10) Progress is Bigger, More, 11) Objectivity, and 12) Right to Comfort. This post examines the first three characteristics and some of the antidotes. Let us learn and practice them to bring about long lasting and authentic change.

Perfectionism is a key characteristic of white supremacy. Often this results in little appreciation expressed among people for work that others are doing; more common is to point out either how the person, employee or their work is inadequate.

Antidotes to perfectionism found in blackness and other ‘minoritized’ cultures and civilizations, are: A culture of appreciation. The organization and its leaders take time to make sure people’s work and efforts are appreciated. We develop a learning organization where people are treated as colleagues whose experience and expertise are valued. Continuous and lifelong learning is valued and empowered. We reject the capitalistic notion of people as human labor to be exploited.

We can resist the white supremacy culture characteristic of perfectionism in other ways as well. Highlight and speak to the things that went well before offering criticism. Ask people to share their own specific suggestions for how to do things differently when you offer criticism.

Another characteristic of white supremacy: A Sense of Urgency. Urgency makes it difficult for anybody to take the time that is needed to be inclusive. A feeling of urgency does not encourage democratic or thoughtful decision-making. Having to get things done right away doesn’t foster thinking for the long-term. When we rush through work-life with a sense of urgency we fail to consider consequences and we don’t treat people as valued decision makers and leaders.

Antidotes to the white supremacy culture characteristic of ‘A Sense of Urgency’ include: An empathic deeply compassionate community which practices attentiveness; leadership treats people with kind words, grace, gratitude, and patient understanding that things take longer than anyone expects. Their vision is concrete, work plans are realistic and have milestones, tangible progress, and movement towards a vision. No micromanagement or detailing with demands.

Defensiveness is another characteristic of white supremacy culture. When an organization structure is set up hierarchically, and information flow is centralized, much energy is then spent by senior administration in trying to protect or grab power rather than to facilitate the best of each person in the organization down to the student worker level even, possibly. The responsibilities and the accountabilities of higher echelons don’t reveal how those who have power are expected to use it. Subordinates rarely question and are frequently afraid to express any disagreement openly because it is construed as criticism instead of positive feedback and suggestions for personal or institutional improvement.

Antidotes to the white supremacy culture characteristic of Defensiveness: create a culture of learning, where failures and mistakes are opportunities to learn. Become an authentic team leaders who contributes to the good of the team rather than an oppressive leader who just asks for reports and piles more and more work on subordinates. Learn to share vulnerably instead of reacting defensively. Practice active listening, transparency, and servant leadership.

This post is about the characteristics of white supremacy culture. For now be aware of these 3 characteristics of perfectionism, a sense of urgency, and defensiveness, and their antidotes, especially the creation of a culture of active listening, appreciation, authenticity, care, cooperation, collaboration, learning, and servant leadership. Share them, stand up for them, and practice them!

Credits: I am greatly indebted to ChangeWork, 2001 for their article The Characteristics of White Supremacy Culture, now a part of Dismantling Racism: A Workbook for Social Change Groups. You will find it here: https://cdn.ymaws.com/www.wpha.org/resource/resmgr/health_&_racial_equity/whitesupremacycultureinorgan.pdf

Related: Educators Who Consider Themselves Allies Are Dangerous When It Comes To Developing Anti-racist Classrooms.

A Personal Note: I’m writing this in the wee hours of Palm Sunday, the anniversary of the day the crowds celebrated Jesus riding in on a donkey. Palm Sunday launches Holy Week which ends in the awful Crucifixion and then the miraculous Resurrection of Jesus. It might not seem like the best day to be thinking and writing about the characteristics of white supremacy culture and antidotes to it. But that’s exactly what I’ve been doing and talking about with my learning communities and it’s been completely Spirit-led. It is not my best writing but I’ve also been observing and mulling on this for 7 months now. In September of 2020 I began to articulate my sense of how all of us – all colors – unknowingly practice white supremacy culture making it pervasive and also oppressive. I realized intentional practices are needed to change it. I began to apply three of the twelve white supremacy cultural characteristics that have been documented since 2001 to myself: perfectionism, a sense of urgency, defensiveness. And I realized that to dismantle racism, Christians in an anti racist organization must follow Jesus 24/7 authentically by creating cultures of appreciation, care, learning, and servant leadership.

Published by Anita

Anita Coleman joined Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary’s faculty as Associate Professor of Bibliography and Research and Director of the the Ernest Miller White Library in January 2020. Anita is passionate about the power of libraries to liberate and give life.

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